UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of May 2017: Jennifer M. Morton

Jennifer M. Morton

Assistant ProfessorCity College-CUNY


AOS: Moral Psychology, Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Education, Social and Political Philosophy

Most of my recent work has been in philosophy of education and action. These areas might seem unrelated, but it’s only recently that I’ve realized that there is a theme that unifies my work. In essence, I’m interested in thinking about how our messy non-ideal world collides with the pristine, sharp, and idealized tools of philosophical thinking. I’m currently working on two projects that fit under that rubric.

The first is a critique of theories of rationality that take the principles of practical reasoning to be universal principles that can be derived a priori. This work really started with my dissertation at Stanford under Michael Bratman, but I have continued to pursue it in light of recent social science that concerns the decision making of people who live in poverty. I argue that when decision makers are facing severe resources scarcity it does not make sense for them to engage in the kind of long-term practical thinking that is often held as the mark of rational agency by philosophers. The practical thinking of those who are in extreme poverty, I suggest, will look quite different than that of middle-class philosophy professors who have the time and resources to think about their long-term decisions. Both, I suggest, are rational given their different contexts. One consequence of my argument is that it urges philosophers to cultivate humility when they make judgments about the rationality of distant others who are in quite different conditions.

The second project concerns the ethics of upward mobility. For a few years now, I have been interested in the value conflicts that those on the path of upward mobility face, in particular, when they are trying to maintain one foot in their community back home while trying to adapt to a new community at school or at work. My interest in this topic really crystallized into a research area while teaching at City College. CUNY is an engine of upward mobility for a large number of first-generation college students in the New York area. I’m in awe of my students. They work so hard to balance their commitments to their families and communities with their commitment to their education. These conflicts are the result of unjust background conditions that do not affect all students equally. But to understand how these conflicts are embedded in social and economic conditions, we need to turn to the social science literature on inequality. For the book I’m currently writing on this topic, I also conducted interviews with people who were themselves first-generation college students. These conversations gave me such a rich insight into the topic that I could not have gained by just reading philosophy or even sociology. So recently I have been thinking more and more about how conversations with non-philosophers should be a part of philosophy more often, in particular, when the topic concerns groups that are not as well-represented in our profession.